By now, most employers are aware of the phenomenon sweeping the country (or at least the news cycles): quiet quitting. In fact, according to a new JobSage survey, nearly a quarter of managers say they’re now more suspicious of their employees because of media reports about quiet quitting. But what about the flip side, “quiet firing”? Nearly a third (29%) of managers surveyed admitted to taking actions to push out employees without actually firing them.
While there are valid reasons to avoid firing workers (and also to fire them), there are rarely good justifications for doing so “quietly.” Subpar workers may improve with regular coaching and truly toxic workers may be better off elsewhere. Because quiet firing amounts to passive-aggressive management, it can seep past the individual employee and diminish trust and morale across the workplace.
That’s not to say that quiet firing is always intentional. Staffing challenges, remote workspaces and hectic schedules can cause managers to disengage from direct reports. But in a tight labor market, the last thing you want to do is send the wrong signals to valuable employees. So to get everyone on the same page, we’ve compiled five ways employees know they’re being “quiet fired” — and what you can do about it as a manager.
No Long-Term Career Discussions
The number one indicator of quiet firing on the employees’ list also made the managers’ top 5 list: a lack of discussions about the future. In fact, over half (53%) of employees say their managers don’t talk to them about their career trajectory. Interestingly, however, only 17% of managers say they avoid these conversations as a way to squeeze out employees.
What does this mean? For starters, not enough supervisors talk to their direct reports about their long-term career plans. It seems unlikely that managers are trying to get rid of over half their workforce, but employees may interpret it that way. A mismatch like this could clearly wreak havoc on worker and company morale. If you do want your employees to stick around long-term, it makes sense to discuss their career plans and goals with them.
Irregular One-on-One Meetings
In the second-most common sign of quiet firing, over a third (37%) of employees mentioned irregular one-on-one meetings with their bosses. For their part, managers don’t say they often avoid one-on-ones as a way to push out workers. Instead, managers may be already stretched thin or not see the value in scheduling individual time with every employee.
The fact is not having one-on-one meetings robs you of a valuable chance to exercise leadership, provide feedback and gather useful information. Face-to-face sessions are an ideal venue for two-way communication, allowing for open dialogue, trust-building, personalized coaching, problem solving and risk mitigation. You may even discover that a respected employee is “quiet quitting” while you can still do something about it.
No challenges or growth opportunities
When most people think of “quiet firing,” this is the picture that comes to mind: someone who is not officially let go, but not promoted or given challenging work either. It turns out that employees and managers agree on this one. In the third-most common sign of “quiet firing,” 29% of employees mentioned receiving no challenges or growth opportunities.
The same concept was reflected in three of the top four ways managers said they quietly fire workers. Besides reducing their workloads (26%), managers admitted to squeezing out employees by passing them over for promotions (21%), withholding raises (19%) and not giving them new challenges (17%).
Opportunities for growth, development and learning are key for retention these days, especially among millennial and Gen Z workers. So if you want to keep employees around for the long haul, you need to offer ways to grow — both financially and developmentally. In fact, a Pew Research study showed that low pay and no opportunities for advancement were the two most common reasons workers quit their jobs in 2021.
Infrequent Performance Feedback
In another indicator that many workers feel neglected, over a quarter (27%) say they do not receive frequent performance feedback. While this was the third-most common sign of quiet firing mentioned by employees, it didn’t even make the top five on the managers’ list. But whether you want a good worker to stick around or a struggling worker to improve, regular feedback is non-negotiable.
A robust feedback system allows you to keep on top of employee performance and provide corrective coaching in a timely manner. It can also give managers a built-in mechanism for providing the praise and recognition that you know your workers want and deserve. Employees who receive regular meaningful feedback often have higher productivity, improved engagement, lower absenteeism and are less likely to look for new jobs, according to a Gallup workplace article.
Exclusion at social events
Rounding out the workers’ list of signs of quiet firing is being excluded at social events (27%). Perhaps this only makes sense, since employees often see the opposite—being newly invited to social activities like work lunches—as a sign of “quiet promotion.” But nothing can demoralize an employee, and upset office balance, more quickly than someone feeling socially excluded at work. Fortunately, this did not appear on the managers’ list of ways they quiet fire employees.
Note, however, that this doesn’t mean workers always want to attend office functions. In fact, 34% of employees say they are scaling back at work to avoid burnout, with 57% specifically indicating that they skip workplace social events when stressed. So while group activities can improve work relationships and employee morale, it’s important to keep them inclusive, relatively short, varied in type and always optional.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to keeping employees productive, happy and engaged, there is no more important work relationship than the one with their boss. In the end, quiet firing is fundamentally incompatible with the traits of a good manager: honesty, transparency and clear communication. So even if it requires some extra coaching sessions or uncomfortable conversations with employees, it can be worth it to maintain integrity and trust in the workplace.
Kelli Mason is a co-founder of JobSage, an employer review platform focused on what matters most to today’s jobseekers and professionals. She has earned national recognition in Forbes 30 under 30 for her work as a leader in the field of workplace diversity and inclusion and has spoken and written widely on the topic.
Quiet Firing stock image by Dmitry Demidovich/Shutterstock